Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Thomas Ellis, one of six surviving Tuskegee Airmen in San Antonio, died of a stroke this month at a local hospital. He was 97.
Drafted into the army in 1942, Ellis later was transferred to the Army Air Forces and was a top administrator with the first all-black Army Air Forces unit.
Ellis was the only enlisted member in the 301st Fighter Squadron, rising to staff sergeant and becoming an integral member of the 332nd Fighter Group -- also known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
"He was very opinionated, very outspoken," Rick Sinkfield, the national spokesman for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., told the San Antonio Express-News. "He realized he was in the segregated military at the time and so he was very aware all eyes were on those guys to do well."
Ellis was known for his approachable and easygoing nature, and endured racism from white officers during the war -- knowing the importance of proving his all-black unit could succeed.
Ellis knew that "all eyes were on those guys to do well, so he wanted to make sure that they were taken care of," Sinkfield said. "And try to help them avoid conflicts with the white officers. They had a problem with black people flying aircraft at the time, so he was very aware of that."
His unit conducted 15,533 sorties, had 112 aerial kills, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Presidential Unit Citations.
After the military, Ellis worked for the U.S. Postal Service and led a jazz quintet, playing the piano professionally. He was named "Man of the Year" at St. Paul Methodist Church, where he also served as the first president of Methodist Men.
"He was really approachable, really easy to meet. He made people feel real good. What he would do is he would see an older person, a person who was holder than him, and say, 'How are you doing, young man? How are you doing, young lady,'" Janice Stallings, Ellis' daughter, said.
"He was like that. Very friendly. Too friendly sometimes. Its just that he would slow you down if you tried to take him someplace."
Ellis is scheduled to be buried will full military honors on Friday at 9 a.m. at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Five surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen remain in San Antonio -- James Bynum, 97; Theodore Johnson, 93; James Kelly, 89; Eugene Derricotte, 91 and Dr. Granville Coggs, 92.